Franco Pepe Margherita Sbagliata

Discovering Franco Pepe

Originally published in Issue 1

Caiazzo is a small town in the province of Caserta. There is nothing that is particularly unusual about the place, it’s like many across Italy. Reachable through stone streets, windy roads, a hilltop village with a church at its centre. An hour from Naples, 18 kilometers from Caserta and it’s royal palace, this was an unknown place, a marking on a map that was until a few years ago. Until Caiazzo became the mecca of pizza, the Illhaeusern of pizza lovers some may say.

To find your own way in life, you don’t need to emigrate, you need not go far, you don’t need to go after a fictional “place for life” or follow the rules that others want you to, this is Pepe’s motto, this is the story of Franco Pepe. an example to those that want to be pizzaioli, and for all the youngsters of the south that dream of a better life.

You need to do a bit of self-auditing, understand what you’re passionate about, follow your own instincts, the solutions are there but you need to work at them, build a team around it, and follow your dreams. This is the message that Pepe takes around the world with a simple slice of Margherita, when he goes into schools and that which he does every day by going to work in a place where just a few years ago didn’t even exist. It didn’t exist because the village was imploding, as is the case for most villages in Italy outside of the big cities. Pepe decided to do something there, create something where no one else would, with all the doubters, will all the critics standing by and watching because, Caiazzo is his territory, a lifelong labour of love.

It’s more than serving great food though, for Pepe, it’s about re-launching a whole new territory. By making the farmers the founders of his pizzeria, Franco Pepe has created something new, a visiting call, a shop window of the best ingredients around, giving back to the community all the time. Arruoliamo i Contadini or Enlist the Farmers is the name of the project that he and master farmer Vincenzo Coppola with other locals have put together to show that by working the land properly, you can live, you can work, you can find happiness and good health and not just for yourself, but for your community. It’s working, slowly, because the youth have realised that it takes one client, the right one, and you can be successful. More people are leaving home, more are planting tomatoes.

The dining hall is a play on sobriety with a colour scheme that dances around white, grey, black, there is soft lighting, the kitchen is visible for everyone to see and two terraces that face into the valley. In recent years they have added two rooms on an upper floor and in 2016, they added a testing kitchen known as “the pizza of the future.”

Being welcoming was a necessity, especially when you consider some of the distances that people would travel to have this world famous pizza. However, they have become projects within projects, where the locals and the local product combine to give you the ingredients and lessons to the next group of people. Staying on the second floor, above the pizzeria there is a library with cooking books, trade magazines, a radio and a tasting area which allows you to understand the pizza using all of your five senses.

There are three tables around twenty spaces for a tasting menu; it’s new, it’s fun and it’s educational. On the first table you observe how a pizza is made by looking downwards through an opaque floor glass that allows you to see everything that is going on. From the other tables you get a real multimedia treat that includes images of the local area, ingredient preparation, ingredient selection and one of Franco Pepe riding his bike through Casertano searching for excellence.

This is a corner for the foodies, where pizza is served in delicate selections and you begin to understand what is truly unique. There is more however. Franco Pepe provides a further three tasting menus where you get to make your selection based on the table you’re sat at, another choice made is by Franco Pepe himself on the “Recommended by Franco Pepe” menu. Here a pizza is made based on your favourite flavours and what the pizzaiolo can bring to the table in terms of flavour. This is gourmet pizza at its best, made from conversations with friends, other chefs and understanding that this is how you raise the standard of pizza preparation to something completely new and different. It’s more than the dough, it’s the topping, it’s an art. This is another fine example of taking a “working man’s” food and raising the standard, whilst always keeping the essence true to hand.

To do this requires the space, where you can taste, not only pizza but different incarnations that are made as well. Service is considered and measured, here you can learn about matching pizza and wine toppings and in this sanctuary, meals last a typically long time. Let’s not forget though, this is a pizzeria and whilst the room is separate, there is still a sense of it and that adds to the experience.

Pepe has gone on to make pizza in London, Dubai, New York and even in the Orient. He’s taken his pizza to Milan, he’ll be opening up in Franciacorta which isn’t far from the northern city. Where he goes, he takes his territory with him, and the world has come back looking for him. There are 14,000 people, roughly, that make the trip to Caiazzo to eat one of his pizzas. Grab a calculator, that is roughly 600 people a day.

If the world sees him as a great Pizzaiolo, his people see him as a great mayor because he has done more for the territory than any previous administration. This was a forgotten corner of Caserta, but through hard work, by convincing the locals and starting what he has, he has created something that no one before could have ever imagined.

Just by walking around the village you get a sense of what is happening. If before it was like a ghost town, life is returning. There is a new bar, a parking garage, an agriturismo, this town now has hope but the most amazing thing is, from the outside it’s hard to see for all the farmland that surrounds it.

“There is a micro-economy that is being built here, that is very different to other professions around, where farmers and artisan craftsman work with training institutions. Together we have created something that works for pizza and works around it.” Franco Pepe.

There may be 21 people working in the kitchen crafting unique pizzas but there is a whole system in the village that is now designed to take ownership across the whole food chain. Where everything has an impact on the other, from the flour to the toppings, the bread to the oils. Everything is symbiotic, there would not be one without the other.

Pepe knows this, he organises trips for groups to discover Alto Casertano to really promote the area taking these people on the trips he took to discover the ingredients he uses and help them with their own personal and professional journey. By doing so, he is showing them that the people working on the land are the young that have gone back to where their grandparents use to work and that their own parents left to pursue lives in different areas, different times.

Year after year, the land is cultivated, the plants grow, the community gets larger, a trade returns to its routes. It’s possible because Pepe shows that is possible, because here, they’re making it possible.

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